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Downhill all the way: Ben Splonskowski, left, and Gonzalo Jimenez take a spin on one of the hand-made sleds. Brian Basham/Tribune

The great hand-built sled race

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They always say you don't stop having fun because you get old, you get old because you stop having fun. If that's the case, a group of men from BTD in Detroit Lakes may be staying forever young.

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It started with a simple work place debate between a couple of guys over who could make the better homemade toboggan.

The debate turned into a challenge -- a challenge other co-workers got wind of and decided they were in fact the ones who could probably design the best sled.

"Pretty soon it turned from a one-man thing to people teaming up and it just went from there," said Ben Splonskowski, one of the sled makers. "And so it was on to see which teams could design the best and fastest two-man sleds."

Eight teams of 16 men began getting together like a couple of cub scouts in a tree house to plan their creations.

"There was a lot of planning and throwing ideas around and watching a lot of videos of other sleds out there," said Splonskowski, "and then we just went into build mode right after Thanksgiving."

Trial and error was the preferred method for the novice sled builders, who were also busy coming up with team names and sled names.

"Dave Shipman and I built 'The Sleigher,'" said Splonskowski who says they named themselves 'Safety Third.'

"Yep, you had to have good design, had to be able to go fast, and then safety was third," he laughed.

The men all collected bits and pieces of things from around their garages (or friends' garages) to assemble the works of art.

"The only thing we bought were the skis from the Boys and Girls Club Thrift Store," said Splonskowski.

"Originally me and my partner, John Peterson, wanted to strap a couple of lawn chairs to a pallet," said Gonzalo Jimenez, who ended up being half of the team called "Top Dog," "but instead we ended up going with two 55 gallon barrels for side by side seats. We cut the tops off and then put a pallet underneath with two skis underneath that, and it turned out pretty awesome."

A test run by Jimenez's children gave Team Top Dog the green light to compete in an informal competition the group had thrown together to determine just who would be crowned winner of the challenge.

Meanwhile, Safety Third was busy installing a steering system, shocks and a rake brake. (Literally ... he brake is a garden rake that digs into the ground when stepped on.)

"Hey, it works perfectly," Splonskowski laughed, "We can stop in an instant."

On Jan. 5, five of the teams showed up at Wolf Lake where a huge, icy hill would be the judge of who went home the winner and who just went home.

"I got to the top of the hill and I looked down and thought, 'Ah, geeze, what did I get myself into?'" said Splonskowski, who says the teams all went by a list of rules for the competition.

Sleds must be homemade without motors or any form of propulsion, and participants must be able to pull, push or carry their sled to the top of the hill for the first run by the team members only. (This ensures a weight limit.)

Riders must stay in their own lane or face disqualification, and there are no push starts -- only gravity.

It would be a double elimination with multiple races.

Although each person put $10 into the pot for prize money, what they all wanted more than anything were bragging rights.

And with family and friends watching, "We probably had 40-50 spectators there," said Splonskowski.

It was go-time.

"That hill was so tall, and we went down so fast that I barely remember it," said Splonskowski, who apparently wasn't fast enough.

A team called "Crème de la Crème" was the winner, but since there's no crying in sled racing, the teams all just went and had a big family picnic in the warming house instead.

"It was so exciting, and just so much fun because we made it a big family thing," said Jimenez, who admits this newfound winter pastime has made them all feel like little boys again.

In fact, the teams all had such an unexpectedly good time throughout the process that they are now hoping to expand.

"We want to get some more people (from throughout the community) who think maybe they'd like to form a team because we want to hold another competition in Detroit Lakes hopefully at the end of this month."

And although the group doesn't have an official name yet ("It'll have to have something with the word 'crazy' in it," joked Splonskowski) they hope to be organized enough to be a real presence by next winter.

"We hope to maybe get into Polar Fest and raise some money for the Boys and Girls Club," he added, "I think maybe we could get a bunch of people together for this and just really have a good time."

For more information on how to form a team, email Ben Splonskowski at bensplon@yahoo.com.

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